Favourites New Zealand will begin their quest for a third successive Rugby World Cup title with a heavyweight clash against South Africa at the 2019 tournament in Japan.
The All Blacks are scheduled to face their old southern hemisphere foes in Yokohama on September 21, a day after hosts Japan kick off the competition against European qualifiers, likely to be Romania, organisers announced in Tokyo on Thursday.
“We are really excited to meet New Zealand first up,” said South Africa head coach Allister Coetzee.
“There is a great and proud rivalry between the Springboks and All Blacks and this opening group match is bound to be another massive contest.”
France, drawn in the so-called “Group of Death” alongside England and Argentina, also open their campaign on September 21 with a key pool C fixture against the Pumas in Tokyo.
Title contenders England take on Tonga in the northern Japanese city of Sapporo – at the venue where a David Beckham penalty beat Argentina at the 2002 football World Cup – the following day.
Two-time champions Australia face a potentially tricky opener against Fiji in pool D, where rivals Wales open against Georgia.
“We kick off against Georgia before facing Australia, both of whom we play this November in Cardiff,” said Wales head coach Warren Gatland.
“We then have a good block of time before facing Fiji in Oita. We have four cities to visit so it is important we buy into the culture of Japan and the tournament.”
Matches will be played at 12 venues including Kamaishi in northeast Japan, which was ravaged by the 2011 tsunami and resulting nuclear disaster.
England’s hopes of knocking the mighty All Blacks off their perch were complicated by a horror draw earlier this year.
The Six Nations champions, who two years ago became the first World Cup hosts not to reach the knockout stage, take on the United States in Kobe after tough-tackling Tonga.
England then face huge back-to-back games against 2015 World Cup semi-finalists Argentina in Tokyo on October 5 and bitter rivals France in Yokohama a week later to complete a devilishly tricky bracket.
England have a mixed World Cup record against three-time finalists France, their last meeting a quarter-final defeat in 2011.
They have won both of their World Cup games so far against Argentina, but the swashbuckling Pumas are capable of beating anyone on their day.
“Our aim is to win the World Cup and support for the team will be an important factor,” said England head coach Eddie Jones.
“We hope to see as many England fans as possible getting behind us in Japan as we try to achieve our ultimate goal.”
New Zealand remain the team to beat, however, and Steve Hansen’s world champions look to have an easy run to the quarter-finals after their blockbusting pool B opener.
The All Blacks famously lost to South Africa in the 1995 final but have won their last two World Cup meetings, including the 2015 semi-final at Twickenham.
New Zealand will avoid England, France or Argentina in the quarter-finals, beginning on October 19, with two of the group C trio set to collide with the top two in Group D, widely expected to be Australia and Wales.
“No matter where or when we’ve got to be ready for it,” Wallabies coach Michael Cheika told local media.
Hosts Japan face difficult games against Ireland in Shizuoka and Scotland in Yokohama as the Brave Blossoms look to defy the odds and reach the knockout phase for the first time.
Already 15 teams have qualified for the 2019 World Cup, with a further five to be determined via regional qualifiers or repechages.